Friday missive from Colombo

I have been in Colombo this week, my last visit here in February coinciding with Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebrations.

As I gear up for returning back to Saigon tonight, I’ve been combing through this morning’s report out from Donald Trump’s July 4th speech about America’s independence, alongside a rash of social media streaming Anne Widdecombe’s inauguration (which, let’s just say “touches” on the topic of independence) as a Member of the European Parliament.

Widdecombe, in case you didn’t seen her performance, compares those duty bearers inside the European Parliament to “feudal barons”, and the United Kingdom to the “peasantry” – a “colony” seeking to escape from the oppressive regime of an “empire”.

Trump, to paraphrase his day in the office, made a speech with lots of “uncharacteristic” words in it (such as “we are one people chasing one dream”) and then stood back as his country’s military arsenal flew overhead.    

Some commentators are comparing Trump to presiding like a “Roman Emperor” at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday. Others feel his patriotism is perfectly in line with a July 4th event (military parades, many argue, are a common enough occurrence at an Independence Day event).

Widdecombe’s monologue has predictably attracted similarly polarized responses.

None of this is new. None of this should, by now (meaning, since we’ve historically tracked issues of governance in society) shock us.

The topic of independence runs like a jagged seam through our history and will, it would seem, continue to do so long after a thick layer of dust has settled on the archives of each of the world’s current government administrations’ collective legacies.

The act of independence is an awesome one.

It simultaneously super-charges the potential for wide-scale liberation and conflict, for shaping societal norms and culture, and for empowering individuals to both leverage power as well as rage against it.

It’s exhausting even to wrap one’s head around the sheer concept of all these things. Almost as exhausting and exacerbating (I’m happy to show my hand on this one) as watching Widdecombe pontificate in front of her MEP colleagues, with Nigel Farage sat sneering next to her.

Thankfully, for me, traveling around a former tropical colony of the British as I was watching Widdecombe’s display, made the irony of her ranting too rich to allow for the biting embarrassment it evoked in me to really ruin my day. Plus, I’m still recovering from being flawed by the audacity of her fellow Brit MEPs turning their backs, the day before, during the European anthem…just ENOUGH ALREADY people!

Working for an international NGO since 2006, I’ve tracked the topic of independence inside CARE’s worldwide network of organisations which comprise our confederation.

We’ve accelerated, since 2014, a change process that is seeking to diversify those top decision makers inside of CARE.

This means pivoting away from our long standing dynamic of these decision makers being based in countries where we don’t deliver programmes. These are countries which are also known affectionately, and wholly inaccurately, as making up the “global north”.

Regardless of the parlance here, the objective is an exciting one.

To now have CARE representatives from Thailand, Peru, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Morocco and Indonesia, residing over critical governance issues related to how we work, alongside the likes of the UK, USA, Australia, France, Germany and Canada, is a nourishing proposition.

And, moreover, it’s actually happening at CARE and not just being talked about. And, so far, it’s working.

In the miniature socio-political world of CARE organisations, our evolution in this way mirrors changes around independence that have taken place on the world stage.

Predictably and, in many ways, healthily, these changes have sparked debates and discourse at CARE, and opened up a platform for us to share ideas on how we best ensure the impact of our work, on the lives of our beneficiaries, also increases from a more diverse governance model.

We’ve a long way to go, however, on this journey. Turning a big ship like CARE requires time. Critically, what will become the real game changer, if we get it right, will be how we learn from the process of establishing new entities, as we have done in Sri Lanka, and what we then do with that learning.

Truly, I think these next 5-10 years could be some of the most influential and critical in CARE’s 75 year history. We adapt our model for doing business, and increase the impact of our work, or we close up shop, for good.

I don’t see any middle line we can take on this.


Also coming out of this week’s discussions with the Chrysalis team (CARE Sri Lanka, after 50 years of operating, closed their programmes down in 2016 and reincarnated as Chrysalis, a social purpose enterprise that focuses on engaging businesses and markets in Sri Lanka in order to support women and youth) a take-away resonating for me, is linked not simply to getting more to grips with the implications on a country, or on an organization, of seeking any form of independence, but also the need to accurately describe what it is that an organization such as Chrysalis actually does. 

Asking the question: “what do we mean by that?” is possibly one of the sharpest tools we have as development practitioners.

I recall feeling immensely fatigued, though, after joining CARE in 2006, from attending drawn out seminars and workshops in which long serving professionals would routinely ask this question.

Often, on reflection, I think I was right to feel that way, as it can become an addictive and distracting habit.

However, I’ve learnt to respect the art form of curious enquiry (my 8 year old has helped with this) and, when it comes to an organization like Chrysalis establishing itself, breaking free as an independent entity from the mother-ship, it seems to me that an opportunity is there for the taking, in carving out a fresh articulation of just what it is that this new entity is all about.

What does it mean, for example, to “support women and youth,” how does an organisation “economically empower” local communities, and what does it mean to “increase women’s voice” in public spaces?

This call out for clarity is aimed at all humanitarian and development organisations. Let me be clear on that.

CARE and Chrysalis, were they to describe more simply and accurately, what their work sets out to achieve – jargon free – would not be catching up with other peers but would, instead, be trail-blazing a refreshing type of new narrative.

One that, perhaps, would help gain traction with new audiences and would open up new possibilities for partnerships and collaborations.

Let’s see.

As “duty bearing” goes, it’s not a lot to ask to describe in plain terms what your organization is seeking to achieve, is it?

As a recently appointed member of the Chrysalis Board, I will hold myself accountable for doing just that.

To be continued…






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